Many of you are doubtless familiar with the object lesson in which you hold up a rope or a long string, and point to a tiny bit in the middle as representing this life, with eternity stretching in both directions, both before and after it. We did this more than once in church classes when I was a teenager, as a way of emphasizing the importance of having an eternal perspective. In Mormon cosmology, mortal life is just a speck of time, infinitesimal in comparison to the eternities.
What’s often struck me in contemplating this is that there are competing narratives in Mormonism about the significance of this life. One is that this life matters tremendously. It’s everything. The decisions you make here will affect you eternally. This perspective is deeply grounded in Book of Mormon teachings—to give just one example, “For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.” (Alma 34:32) The Book of Mormon does not indicate any belief in postmortal second chances—you have to choose God here. Your eternal destiny hangs in the balance.
The picture gets muddied a bit, of course, by Joseph Smith’s later teaching that people in the spirit world could choose to accept the gospel after death. My impression is that the standard approach today is to say that this postmortal second chance only applies to people who didn’t have the opportunity to accept the gospel in this life, which has of course led to some convoluted discussion about just what it means to have had your chance (e.g., if you turn away the LDS missionaries, is that it for you?) D&C 76 is usually interpreted to mean that those who procrastinate the day of their repentance to the next life can hope to do no better than the terrestrial kingdom.
An interesting side effect of the LDS theology underlying baptism for the dead is that at least from one perspective, there really isn’t all that much urgency about sharing the gospel with the world. It’s not as if people are going to be damned if they don’t hear it. In fact, one might ask, wouldn’t it maybe be easier to wait and just preach it in the life to come? The intense missionary impulse present in Mormonism seems somewhat at odds with a theology in which you can convert in the next life, too. I suspect that this is one reason why Mormonism takes a more positive than negative approach in its proselytizing efforts, in terms of emphasizing the benefits that church membership can bring, rather than focusing on how you need to turn to Christ to avoid hell.
Another wrinkle in this has to do with children who die before the age of accountability (which, especially when you look at world history, is a significant percentage of all the people who’ve come to earth), and who are said to be guaranteed a ticket to the celestial kingdom. What was the purpose of this life for them? It doesn’t seem that the usual answers—to be tested, to see if you’ll follow God’s commands, to learn and develop—hold up very well. The idea I’ve heard most commonly is that it’s all about getting a body, even if only for a few seconds in some instances, but I have trouble making sense of that.
But what I find the most striking—and puzzling—aspect of all of this is the strange disconnection in which when we’re talking about moral decision-making with eternal consequences, this life is said to be absolutely vital—but when we’re talking about suffering and difficulties, this life is said to not be that big of a deal. Perhaps the most prominent example of the latter is an oft-cited comment by Boyd K. Packer that a woman dealing with abuse needs to know that “her trials—however hard to bear—in the eternal scheme of things may be compared to a very, very bad experience in the second semester of the first grade.”1 This sort of approach also shows up again and again when the situation of single people and gay people is discussed—they are exhorted to “have an eternal perspective” on their situation, which is often code for, “hope that things will be better when you’re dead.” The essential learning and growth that many Latter-day Saints see as coming only from marriage and raising children is, for a significant number of people, delayed to the next life, and we are left scrambling to figure out a life purpose for those who don’t fit the mold. This is an area where LDS theology is quite frankly woefully underdeveloped.
My question is, to use Packer’s framework: what sense does it make to have our eternal fate rest upon decisions we made in the second semester of first grade? We would find it preposterous to hold people accountable for the rest of their lives for what they did as first-graders, to say that they could never again alter the path they chose at age six. Does it really make sense to point to this life as just a tiny sliver of eternity, and then say that our situation for the rest of eternity depends on what we do here? I’ve never bought into notion held by some traditional Christians that your decisions in the context of mortal time can result in eternal (in the sense of neverending) punishment. Now matter how awful you were in this life, I simply can’t see how it could possibly be just to torture you forever. So even though I think D&C 19 is a bit sneaky, with its redefinitions of “endless” and “eternal” (is God really saying, oh that was just a giant fake-out?), I like the theology. On the other hand, I think that similar issues come up if you say that people are placed forever in the kingdom where they end up, which is why I’m happy to see that the doctrine of progression between kingdoms seems to be making a bit of a comeback.2
So in the context of LDS teachings, does this life matter? I’m not sure you can have it both ways, and say that it’s not that big of a deal and you just need an eternal perspective because this life doesn’t matter all that much when dealing with horrific questions of human suffering, or with people whose life doesn’t follow the “ideal” narrative—and then turn around and say, oh but this life is all-important when it comes to the eternal consequences of what you do here.
- See “Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council,” By Elder Boyd K. Packer, May 18, 1993. He is saying this in the context of denouncing feminism, which he says will not bring the “enduring peace” that an eternal perspective can. [↩]
- See J. Stapley’s recent post at BCC, especially the last paragraph. [↩]